Karl A. Lamers: The Role of NATO Has Totally Changed

Karl A. Lamers, the President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, talked to Iivi Anna Masso in Tallinn on May 27, 2012. The interview was published in Diplomaatia 106-107 / June-July 2012 (also in Estonian).

What were the most important questions raised at NATO’s Chicago Summit? What were the most important decisions made? Were the results encouraging?

Several important issues have been discussed in Chicago. One main issue was the question how we can sustain our level of capability in times of severe austerity. It becomes more and more challenging to take care of the security of the people in our countries. We have to prevent the ongoing financial crisis turning into a security crisis. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has introduced the concept of ‘smart defence’, an initiative that will help us to integrate our defence structures – from procurement to training – in order to keep our capabilities despite financial constraints. Implementing smart defence is not only a technical challenge, but also – since it affects national sovereignty – a political challenge. In my address to the heads of state and government in Chicago, I highlighted the issue of smart defence. I am glad that our heads of state and government by adopting the declaration ‘Towards NATO Forces 2020’ made an important practical step towards keeping our capabilities. In this regard, I’d like to highlight the very positive outcome of the summit for Estonia and its neighbours. Air policing in the Baltic states is a good example of smart defence: to take care of security in a very challenging time for all of us by cooperation. I am very glad that the air policing initiative has been approved in Chicago.

Another very important topic was Afghanistan. I think we all have a high level of responsibility here. We need to do everything to finish this mission successfully. We need to avoid an uncoordinated withdrawal of troops. We have to organise our withdrawal on the basis of common decisions, following the Lisbon Summit. We’ll finish the military mission by 2014. We need to develop a next form of engagement that is different from ISAF, which gives the people of Afghanistan a perspective for the future. Also, in this regard, our heads of state and government made important decisions on the road to a stable and secure Afghanistan. The transition of full security responsibility from ISAF to Afghan security forces has been reassured and specified in the post-2014 strategy, called ‘Enduring Partnership’. It was important that the Chicago declaration highlighted the political dimension of the Afghan challenge and its regional context. We cannot build up a secure Afghanistan only by military means.

This brings me to another important issue – NATO partnerships. We need to enhance our cooperation with partners, countries and organisations with the same security objectives. Already now, our partners significantly contribute to our missions, for example, Australia and Georgia in Afghanistan. To enhance our partnership is especially important with regard to the European Union – a partner indispensable also for smart defence. There are various institutions like the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative structuring existing partnerships. It is now important to make full use of these structures.

Another highly important issue was NATO enlargement. There are four countries waiting at the open door – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Georgia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Chicago Declaration by reiterating the decisions of the Bucharest Summit 2008 reassured the open door policy and sent strong signals of encouragement and support to these countries. This was an important, long-awaited step.

In my speech at the Chicago Summit, I highlighted also the Arab world. It is a fascinating situation over there. We need to seize the opportunities that have arisen. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly offers help and assistance if requested by the countries in transition. We have already had first contacts with these countries and look for more intense cooperation. In autumn, I’ll travel to Egypt and Tunisia. We are ready to share the experience of parliamentarians from countries that experienced 20 years ago the transformation from an autocratic to a democratic society. This experience is also of high value to the Arab countries.

Are the same questions on the agenda here in Tallinn? Is there anything new after Chicago to be discussed here?

It is the first time we have ever had a session here in Estonia, in Tallinn. I am very grateful to the hosts, especially Marko Mihkelson who is the leader of the Estonian delegation. We thank the President and Madam Speaker of the Parliament who will participate in our plenary session. This demonstrates a high level of interest here.

Concerning the topics discussed, we cover in general the scope of issues raised by our heads of state and government, especially smart defence and Afghanistan. Both topics are covered by various committees and their respective views. But we have also our own focal points. One of our key issues is the Arab Spring and its implications for the Euro-Atlantic territory. Another important aspect here in Tallinn is our relationship with Ukraine in the face of the recent political developments as well as our cooperation with Russia. Concerning the latter, we have the NATO-Russian Committee, similar to the [NATO-Russian] Council in Brussels, in which we discuss issues of common concern together with the Russians, not in a 28+1 but a 29 format. The main issue this year was the situation in North Africa and the Middle East and the challenges for NATO and Russia. That was a really lively debate.

We speak about these issues at the level of parliamentarians from member states and associated countries. Looking at the various nations and the political orientations, these sessions provide a very good setting for intense dialogue and an insightful exchange of views. The most important goal is to bring all these impressions back to our national parliaments, to our parliamentary committees ­– defence committees, foreign committees, etc. These impressions can influence our politics at home. At the same time, this is a wonderful opportunity to let our colleagues see what is discussed at home, e.g. what ‘smart defence’ means in particular countries. Tallinn is the first opportunity, a few days after Chicago, to do so. So, we are very happy to be here.

Do the (West) European national parliaments at home appreciate the role of NATO as they did during the Cold War?

Yes, definitively. The days when NATO was put into question immediately after the end of the Cold War by various political groups belong to the past. The accession of new members like Estonia has confirmed NATO’s importance after the Cold War. At the same time, we all experienced new threats emerging and NATO is the only response to these threats. Although, of course, there are internal debates in various countries about the aspects of NATO policies – the question of our mission in Afghanistan, for example – NATO itself is not under discussion in any country.

At the same time, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly offers parliamentarians the opportunity to take part in discussions about NATO. These discussions are also of high importance for our heads of state and government. They need to be backed by us in their policy making; they need the parliaments and the parliamentarians. We legitimise their decisions. The invitation to the President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to address NATO Summits with the concerns of parliamentarians is a strong message about this appreciation.

Has the role of NATO changed since the Cold War?

Totally. During the times of the Cold War, we had one enemy. The threat was clear and more calculable. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, NATO was without an opponent. Moreover, countries of the Warsaw Pact wanted to become members of NATO. At the same time, we saw new threats arising. The conflicts in the Balkan region, directly at our border, posed a new challenge to NATO from a technical, but also a strategic point of view. After we successively adapted to crisis and conflict management, we experienced 9/11. The fight against terrorism led to an absolutely new security strategy. Now we are challenged by cyber threats, energy insecurity, piracy – just to name a few new challenges. We have to develop, to see what is going on in the world and to follow these changes. Each of these new challenges requires an individual political, strategic and technological answer. NATO is adapting to these requirements. And so does the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

I think it is our task and our responsibility to change and develop in accordance with what is going on in the world. So, we are open for transformation; we develop along with the world. Nobody could expect what happened in Central Europe 20 years ago and NATO opened its doors for many countries. Now there are again other countries standing in front of the door. A new situation has arisen, surprisingly, in the Arab world. One and a half years ago this development was unpredictable. We need to seize these opportunities, to tell people that we are a values-based organisation and to spread our values around the world when people ask for our advice – that is the most important thing we, especially as parliamentarians, can do.

You mentioned that it is important to prevent the European economic crisis from turning into a security crisis. Is there a threat that it could turn into a security crisis?

Sure. During the last two years, the cuts in the European defence budgets amounted to 45 billion US dollars. That means there is less money for defence investment, but we will do everything in order not to lose our capabilities. We must stand ready to give a response to the threats.

You were targeted by cyber attacks here in Estonia in 2007; Georgia in 2008; in 2010 Iran was attacked by Stuxnet. So, that is a real new threat. We speak about missile defence. We speak about energy crisis, climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We face a whole range of new threats. So, we cannot say that we are going on decreasing our budgets and expect that this will have no impact on our security. I have the responsibility, as long as I have been elected a Member of Parliament, to do my best to protect the people in our country. Therefore I ask national parliamentarians to urge their governments to spend enough money on defence. Your country invests 2% of GDP. That is more than many other NATO countries do.

We are currently hit by the financial crisis. It is clear that we need to focus on consolidating our budgets. But we cannot choose between economic growth and security, especially as we live in a world in which other countries – China, Russia and India – increase their defence budgets. I think we need to be very careful with fiscal policies and their impact on our security.

There have been discussions that the European defence budget cuts and the disproportionately small share of investments in NATO security by European countries compared to the US could put some pressure on US-European relations and that the willingness of the US to carry the burden could be reduced?

Yes, we have a strong message from the US that they are no longer ready and able to spend as much as they did in the past. They ask for more contribution from the Europeans and I think they are right. We have to do more. They have taken over a very high burden. However, I wouldn’t speak about tensions between the US and Europe. We all belong together; we know that we are threatened by common challenges. But the US is right when they say we have to do more.

There is also some fear in Europe that we’d be left alone as other parts of the world become more important for the US in comparison.

You mean the Pacific region? I think turning to the Pacific is very important for the US and it is in our interest too that they do so. We have to look around the world; we should not be fixed only to the Atlantic area. A stronger interest of the US in the Pacific doesn’t mean neglecting European partners. Looking toward the Pacific is very important. But it cannot replace the long-grown, values-based and trustful cooperation with Europe. This cooperation has never been put into question. To the contrary, Europeans should contribute to the US attention in the Pacific region.

So, there is no trade-off?

No. NATO seeks closer partnerships with countries and regions that face the same security challenges. In order to realise our security ambitions in this increasingly complicated global environment, we need to work together with powers around the world. The Pacific region is one key actor in this regard. Some of the Pacific countries have already supported ISAF. There are also other areas of cooperation –maritime security, for example. So, I don’t see the new US engagement in the region as a threat to relations between Europe and the US. I think that Europeans or NATO as a whole will only benefit from these closer ties between the US and its Pacific partners.

Does the European Union need a stronger common voice in foreign and security policy in your view?

Yes, I think we have to develop a stronger voice, but not in competition with the US but together with them. NATO is an umbrella; it is a Euro-Atlantic organisation with a European pillar. Working trustfully together is very important and speaking more and more with one voice would be very important for NATO to grow. But strengthening this one voice is really challenging, especially regarding the question of national sovereignty. As we speak about smart defence, working together in some fields may lead to testing the borders of national sovereignty. We have to work out a balance between national sovereignty and the reliability of the Alliance.

Does this mean giving up some national sovereignty in order to better accommodate cooperation?

I wouldn’t talk about giving up sovereignty. You will always keep national sovereignty. But yes, in many fields Europeans have already transferred parts of their sovereignty – not in the framework of NATO, but within the European Union. This is hard work. The field of defence is very sensitive. We have to find a balance. We must have in mind that we need to guarantee a reliable and functioning Alliance. Developing this understanding is our task.

You mentioned to the Estonian TV (ERR) that NATO should work together with Russia on missile defence in Europe. Can you foresee a fruitful cooperation here?

We need fruitful cooperation here! Missile defence is challenging, as we have different approaches to this project. I’ve always told the Russians that we were facing common challenges and threats and that this system was not directed against Russia. At the Lisbon Summit, they were invited to work with us. But they still have concerns about our approach. It is important to accept these concerns and to discuss in an open way how we can raise the level of trust. Cooperation with Russia is indispensable. While discussing this still pending issue, it is important to keep in mind the ongoing fruitful cooperation with Russia in many other areas, most importantly Afghanistan. We need Russia for our security, for the solutions of many problems – I think of Afghanistan, the Middle East. We have to do everything to involve them more.

Last November, I led a bureau meeting to Moscow, where we opened the channels of cooperation after they had been frozen as a result of the Russian-Georgian conflict. This was an important step. We have a Russian delegation here at the Assembly with an associate status. I had bilateral meetings with some of their representatives yesterday. We have a good, trusting cooperation. I asked if the situation had changed after President Putin had returned to his office and they said no. So, it seems it has not really changed. I do think there is still an opportunity for us to work together. At the level of parliamentarians we try our best to make this cooperation work.

Regarding ‘the West and the rest’, should we be worried about the reduced relative economic, political and military power of the West? What do we need to do in order to turn this trend into an opportunity rather than a threat?

The decreasing economic power of Europe is, indeed, a huge challenge. But I wouldn’t overestimate the economic status. Despite all grave problems, we are still keeping a high level in international comparison. Nevertheless, the difficult economic situation has impacts on our military power, but also on our status on the geopolitical stage. We shouldn’t see the financial obstacles only as a challenge – it is also an incentive. Concerning military power, I elaborated already on smart defence – it is a real chance. There have been already several cooperation initiatives in the past. But the pressure has never been that strong to finally start defence integration. Smart defence will help us to keep both our level of ability and our level of ambition.

Beyond this military dimension, the political impact of the financial crisis forces us to finally use the opportunity and speak with one stronger voice in Europe. The lack of unity, for example, in the sphere of foreign policy has been criticised in the past. To be under pressure now – in the face of new emerging powers – will help us to grow together again. A strong European voice will enable us to keep up with our political influence in times of shifting geopolitical conditions. In order to win the future, we need to transfer more sovereignty already today. That’s a difficult challenge. We need to remember what Europe achieved in the past decades. Europe is not only a symbol of political and economic strength; it is also an expression for a system of values. And how attractive these values are even now has become clear during the Arab Spring.

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